Ron Brooks Interview With Kurt Elling

Ron Brooks, bassist and owner of the Bird of Paradise, had a conversation with vocalist Kurt Elling on March 6, the last day of Elling's appearance at the Ann Arbor club. What follows is an edited version of that conversation.

RON BROOKS: We are documenting some of the great musicians who have graced the Bird of Paradise with their presence. And I would certainly include you in that category. There's a message that you're conveying, not only to the knowledgeable musician, or to the avid listener, but vocally to people with a modicum of understanding of what you do. What are you really trying to get to?

KURT ELLING: Well, I think a lot of the stuff I'm trying to get to is explicit in my lyrics. I'm trying to present a picture of humanity and of the possibility of the human mind that are focused on possibilities, focused on higher standards of beauty. You know, beauty is its own excuse, its own reward, its own virtue.

Playing really well is a virtue. Being good at a craft is a virtue. And the reason it's a virtue is because it takes discipline. It takes focus and it takes dedication to attain proficiency at something. Whether it's singing jazz well or playing an instrument well or writing well, each of us has these possibilities. Each individual has possibilities, what they can do. That is, in the Greek sense, their virtue, that which is the perfect gift that they have to offer. And when you have that virtue, you have joy. I don't think there's really any one message though that I'm after, other than just providing people with a situation that they can come to and not have a bunch of junk thrown at them, and just offer the best version of what I think is possible musically. Surround myself with the right people and just be real and honest. 

R.B.: I sometimes say that the reason musicians play instruments is because they use their musical vehicle better than their vocal vehicle. Musicians say it with music. You're unique in the sense that you have that gift — and thank you for sharing it. How do you put into words what happened tonight? Because tonight was kind of special. I know it, and I think a lot of people know it. They couldn't put it into words, but they walked away with something special.

K.E.: That should be enough. They don't have to put it into words. First of all, the audience, as you know, whether you're making a recording and putting that into the world or you're in a live performance, you can't prescribe to them what they get to have. You can give them your best work and you can aim that arrow, but it's for every person to interpret the art themselves and to have the experience they're going to have. If anything, if they walk away and they can't exactly put it into words, but they're still thrilled or they're still exhilarated or they're still happy or they're still moved, they remember something...then in a way that's a higher compliment. If they walk away right away and they say, "Wow, what a technician!", that's cool. If I have created something that's beyond reality [I have been] an open channel for the message, that is the blessing. 

R.B.: You named your album The Messenger.

K.E.: Yes, it was the name of the last composition on there. And if there is a message, then it's probably just the lyrics of that piece. That is as succinctly as it can be put. Art describes itself. There's no further statement that needs to be made.

R.B.: Mose Allison was here and he said he used to go to San Francisco six months a year and now he does just six gigs a year. What do you think is happening with this art form? 

K.E.: We're under a larger avalanche than we thought we were under. It's not a good time, I don't think, for jazz, at all. I think we're just being dumped on from all sides. Younger people aren't, as a rule, capable of approaching what we do. They don't have any schools. They're not being exposed to it. So their standards are extremely low. And if you couple that with the explosion of so-called World Music, why isn't jazz World Music? Why don't we get to compete in that market? We're in the world. We have a unique history and we have our heroes. We have a unique take on what it is. Why aren't we being marketed in that way? Instead we're sort of put off into That Which Doesn't Sell, That Which Only Sells a Thousand Copies. It's a drag.

R.B.:  Sounds like the opportunity then for you to be able to share what you do with larger numbers of people is diminishing.

K.E.: The possibilities are still there, and it's not necessarily about me personally, but about the art form. With the first and second generations of the great players passing away, you know, we're merely conservationists at this point. If you're not Ray Brown, if you're not Ella Fitzgerald, it doesn't matter really in a lot of ways how good you are; the time of the welcome reception of that level of innovation and soulfulness and playing is not with us now. And so the jazz heroes are just inside the family. Inside the beltway. You and I know who Christian McBride is. You and I know who Roy Hargrove is or Danilo Perez...

R.B.: Who was here recently.

K.E.: You and I know who they are, but their names are staying inside of the family. Except on a case-by-case basis when people like that get to perform for non-jazz listeners and sort of convert them at least to their act, one person at a time. I've been in the same boat. In a lot of ways I'm lucky because I play the right instrument. I can get away with a lot of very outside or comparatively outside material because there's a voice and lyrics attached to it. Not all cats have that opportunity. They have even more of a challenge. But that means that it's more my responsibility to be faithful and to present the best information that I can present. And to hope that people, when they hear me sing Wayne Shorter, then maybe they have that question. You can't really do much more than that. You can't go around putting Wayne Shorter CDs in everybody's hands. And if you did, most of them wouldn't know what to make of the sound anyway. So, that's as far as it can go. On the positive side, you know, I'm not broke yet.

R.B.: I compliment you on your integrity to stick to your guns. And I compliment you for the quality in the work that you do and your intensity, your integrity to maintain this art form. The message we have to get to people is that this is an art form that really needs to be given a lot of attention. I really appreciate your coming here to the Bird.

K.E.: Thank you very much. Thank you for having us.